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Frank Horvat: photography must catch unrepeatable moments

an interview by Enrico Ratto

Frank Horvat, I recently saw one of your exhibitions and had the impression that at this time in your life you feel very comfortable, and that your work is in constant evolution…

I’m interested in time and in history. And I wish to understand what is going on in the world.

Some photographers seem to stop at their peak…

Yes. A good example is Robert Doisneau, who in the span of about ten years has done some extraordinary work. Then, for him as for others, photography remained what it had been when he was in his twenties or thirties. Many photographers tend to be critical of what is new and to consider contemporary work weaker than past work.

Now many of them believe that in the past every click was premeditated, intentional and perfect, while presently people shoot without much thinking.

For me, it’s the opposite: in the past I used to shoot more, simply because I never knew if I had a good shot. So I went on searching. Now I look at my camera screen, and when it seems to me that I got it, I stop. Possibly, my results were better before : because I didn’t know what I had, and kept trying.

Anyhow, you seem comfortable with digital photography. Your App for a tablet is quite complex…

AImost too complex. For every image there are several keywords leading to other images. Only these keywords are not simple categories, such as men, women, dogs and cats – but something like viewpoints. The spectator can follow thousands of different itineraries, everyone can follow his own logic. My app works like my brain, by associating ideas. You can start from one image, for instance a family picture, and end up at what I call the human condition. It’s a mental trip.

There are also your comments. What do they add to the images?

They help linking the images to each other. I believe that explaining a photo is boring, while it may be interesting to encourage the spectator to associate images and to discover connections between them.

Do you communicate on social medias?

I often find them boring. Their system based on “likes” and “dislikes” seems a bit silly. I find it superficial to judge something without knowing much about it. Just as when people vote without knowing what they are voting for. They can’t help reacting emotionally and nostalgically. Or they need to know where and when a picture was taken, in order to connect to some preconceived idea. That’s why, in my exhibition in Seravezza, I organized my photos according to keywords. So people have an idea of what to look for, and when they find it they feel that they have been smart, and enjoy that feeling.

When in an exhibition or in a magazine you see one of your photos taken many years earlier, for some advertising purpose, do you feel comfortable with it?

Why not? What is most interesting about a photo is what is left, after all the reasons for taking it are gone.

What are you presently working on?

There are several projects I need to finish, because I’m aware that my time is limited. One is a new app for tablets, that will not be a substitute for my present one, but a presentation of ten year’s work with a compact digital camera. I shall call it : An Eye at the Fingertips. What I wish to say is: “Here is what anyone could do with a compact camera (or even with an i-phone)”. The focus will not be so much on the single images, as on the passage from one image to the others. In this application, I will show photos that anyone could take. Except that the project should look like something that no one else could have done. The photos will not only speak by themselves, but also by the way they are linked.

Usually it isn’t very interesting to talk about technology, tools and cameras, but in your case it really is…

In my life as a professional photographer, the first camera I really felt at ease with was the Leica. Then I discovered the 35 mm reflex cameras. They are different from the Leica, because they allow to see the depth of focus. This encouraged me to take pictures with very poor light. I rarely used larger formats. In New York, where I did an important project, over more than six years, I worked with just one lens, the 85mm. So that I only photographed what that lens was suited for, and I never did any of the classic wide-angle photos of New York. Then, in 1999 – the last year of the millennium – I undertook a year-long photographic diary, all around Europe, with a tiny Olympus camera, and without ever knowing in advance what I would find. I always had my camera in my pocket. Bystanders took me for an old amateur, who was just playing around and couldn’t be taken very seriously. A few years later I tried the first Nikon digital cameras, which were huge and heavy. Now I work again with compacts. In fact, they are not as easy to use as you would imagine: because you have to select the right setting. Though sometimes a mistake can produce interesting results….

There are many computers in your studio, do you use them in postproduction?

I’m interested in color, I rarely transform my original color into black and white. But postproduction allows me to enhance what interested me when shooting.

How do you select the pictures?

At this point, I’m not always sure of what I’m looking for: as if some instinct was telling me that a certain situation, in a certain light, could work. And the same instinct tells me which ones to discard.

Do you have a precise project in mind before shooting?

If I had one, I wouldn’t even feel the need to shoot. On the contrary, I sometimes shoot to find out what I’m looking for. Henri Cartier-Bresson had this lifelong project to travel around the world, to bear witness about what to him seemed important. But even when his subjects were as important as Gandhi or the Chinese revolution, he didn’t press the button unless he saw what to him seemed the right composition. Doisneau didn’t worry so much about composition, he wanted to present a certain kind of reality, that made him feel good. Once he told me that his main motivation, for taking photos was to prove that nice people really existed. My own Eye at the Fingertips only became a real project when I began assembling it.

Today, when do you understand that a picture is important?

I don’t really know what today is important, but I think that it’s important to show how confused and many-sided the world has become. In the thirties, Cartier-Bresson knew that Matisse was important, so he took a great photo of Matisse. He knew that Giacometti was important, and he took a great photo of Giacometti. He knew that China was important, so he went to China and took some great photos. Now everything is multi-faced and mixed-up, and I keep trying to make sense of it. Our age is all at once playful, superficial and tragic. If few of our contemporaries seem to be aware of this, it’s because few have any notion of history.

Maybe projects representing our time should also be disorganized and incoherent. A year ago, the photographer Mario Sorrenti came up with his biographic book. His layout is very articulated, but with no clear order, a really complex project.

To me, my layouts and my structures are just as important as my photos, or even more. It’s like writing a novel. Structuring an exhibition, an app, a book seems just as essential as shooting. For others, like my friend Boubat, the only decisive moment was the shooting – but then what he got was often extraordinary!

You build paths using keywords. Are the titles of your photos just as important?

In my exhibition in Seravezza the titles were important. The spectator needs a starting point, such as a place and a date, from where he can move to find other meanings.

Why did you shoot so many self-portraits in the many different phases of your life?

Often I take a shot because I’m surprised by what I see. And I’m often surprised when seeing myself in a mirror, or when looking at some part of my body. Another reason is that I am a convenient subject, docile and always available.

Even in the studio and doing fashion photos you manage to find surprises ?

It’s harder. That’s why I began by shooting fashion in the streets. But later, to make things a little more difficult for myself, I started looking for surprises in the studio. With less and less accessories and props. Then I went as far as to avoid showing the mqdel’s face. Because I realised that what matters is not so much what the spectator sees, as what he imagines.

And at a certain point you decided to stop working with magazines?

Maybe they decided to stop working with me.

Do you work a lot with galleries?

They sell my prints.. But most of the time they sell the same photos. Collectors seem more interested in what they already know.

Do people know how to read images?

In general, those who visit a photographic exhibition are interested in photography. I try to help them by providing titles and keys. But this doesn’t guarantee that everyone will understand my work. I tend to believe that photography is more difficult to understand than painting and music.

Why do photographers like to shoot in places where there are problems – such as wars?

I believe that many photographers are really concerned with those problems. We all know that we must die, so we are interested in seeing how people die. When some accident happens, people gather and watch, and I don’t blame them: they feel concerned because they know that it could happen to them.

Do you think that photography always catches unrepeatable moments?

I think that should catch unrepeatable moments, or at least make us believe that they are unrepeatable.


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